Avon And Somerset Constabulary Settles Claims for Assault and Breaches of Human Rights
A police force has paid substantial undisclosed damages to five protestors who attended a peaceful demonstration in Bristol against proposed Government legislation on 23 March 2021.
Vehicle dwellers Lee Guy, 34, Flora Sidebottom, 23, Luke Wentworth, 33, and two others were among protestors who attended a peaceful demonstration on College Green, in front of Bristol’s Cathedral and City Hall, to in opposition to the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill which they feared would discriminate against the Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities. The parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights described parts of the Bill affecting GRT communities as “likely to be in breach of the right to respect for private and family life … [and] in contravention of the requirement … that human rights and freedoms be secured without discrimination.”
After a day of peaceful protest, large numbers of police officers from Avon and Somerset and surrounding forces, dressed in body armour and carrying shields, forced the protestors off the Green, bringing the demonstration to an abrupt end. All the protestors in this legal settlement alleged they were either assaulted or put in fear of police violence. Mobile phone footage shows one protestor included in the settlement being dragged along the ground by his hair. Lee Guy was struck in the face with a riot shield and has been left with scars. None of the five claimants were arrested nor have they been charged with any criminal offences.
In correspondence with the Public Law and Human Rights department at the law firm Irwin Mitchell representing the protestors, Avon and Somerset Constabulary claimed their actions were lawful under the Coronavirus Regulations. However, a parliamentary report in July 2021 found the force had made “errors of law” as it “adopted the position that gathering for protest was unlawful under the All Tiers Regulations” when in fact protesting could be a reasonable excuse for leaving home during lockdown. The report found “no evidence that A&SC properly considered or understood” the rights to peaceful protest.
In April 2021 Avon and Somerset Constabulary admitted it had falsely imprisoned protestors on another occasion due to an unlawful force-wide ban on demonstrations. The force said it had misunderstood “the legal effect of the regulations”.
In legal correspondence Irwin Mitchell argued that the senior officer in charge of policing the demonstration on 23 March 2021 acted unlawfully when they failed to consider whether it was “necessary and proportionate” to clear the demonstration by force. The protestors’ lawyers argued that the police had failed to consider issues including the actual health risks posed by the demonstration continuing, the health risks arising from using force to clear the demonstration, and the options for engaging with protestors so as to avoid a forcible dispersal. A publicly available video shows Luke Wentworth speaking with officers earlier in the evening saying “we don’t want to have a rave here. We don’t want to turn this into a festival we don’t want bad press. It is really important for us that this goes nicely. Not only with the local community and with the media but also with you guys”.
Despite agreeing to pay damages the police have refused to admit liability or apologise.
Lee Guy, a visual artist and musician, said: “The protest had been so peaceful all day, which was really important to us. We wanted to show the police and the public that we weren’t hooligans and we weren’t a threat. We were there to make a serious point about a way of life that is under threat. So it was really shocking to be confronted with rows of police officers in riot gear pushing and hitting us. People were sitting on the ground with their hands in the air saying peaceful protest but they still got hit. I was trying to leave the Green when a police officer smashed me in my face with his shield for no reason at all. I hope this settlement will remind all police forces that they need to respect the right to peaceful protest, because they’ll be held accountable if they don’t.”
Flora Sidebottom, a teaching assistant, said: “The atmosphere at the protest had been lovely, people were singing songs and doing circus skills. Lots of people were wearing masks and there was hand sanitiser available. I couldn’t believe it when the riot police turned up and started attacking people. At one point I was crushed under two riot shields and I felt like I couldn’t breathe. One officer even pulled my face mask off, which was really shocking as they had forced us so close together. I’ve been to quite a few demonstrations over the years but I’ve never experienced that kind of violence from the police. I was covered in bruises afterwards. It’s totally undermined my confidence in the police as somewhere I could go for protection if I needed it.”
Luke Wentworth, an artist, said: “As one of the older people at the protests I felt quite a lot of responsibility to make sure that things went smoothly and there wasn’t any repeat of the trouble we had seen at the other Kill the Bill demos. That’s why I made a point of searching out officers earlier in the evening and trying to build a dialogue with them. I wanted them to understand that we would work with them to make sure there wasn’t any need for the police to get heavy handed, but when it came down to it they just ignored me and stormed in anyway. It was horrible to see, and I felt like I had let the other protestors down, particularly the young ones who were obviously really upset. I just couldn’t believe that we had been entirely peaceful, we were speaking with the police, and they still decided to treat us like a mob.”
Expert Opinion“The police have a long established legal duty to facilitate the rights to freedom of expression and freedom of assembly. Those rights can only be inferred with where it is necessary and proportionate to do so. No one is saying that policing during a pandemic is easy but human rights have to be respected at all times, not just went it’s convenient or straightforward. We must be wary of trading away our hard won liberties, even in challenging times. The fact that Avon and Somerset has refused to apologise to my clients notwithstanding the weight of evidence indicating they acted unlawfully is very disappointing and calls into question their commitment to respecting human rights.” Gus Silverman, Public Law and Human Rights Lawyer
In March 2022 the High Court ruled that the Metropolitan Police acted unlawfully when they told organisers that a vigil in memory of Sarah Everard could not go ahead on Clapham Common. The court held that the force had unlawfully failed to consider whether the right to protest provided a ‘reasonable excuse’ under the Coronavirus Regulations.